As I prepared to board the Korean Air 747 in Christchurch, I couldn’t help but think about the age of the global 747 fleet and whether or not I was actually boarding a plane old enough to be a grandparent. However, images of engine failures and lengthy plunges into the cold ocean were soon overcome as the professionalism of the Korean crew and pilots put any fears to bed. I mean, if we were to crash, it would be so precise and controlled that the air hosts would probably provide all the passengers with seaweed soup as we exited the crippled plane.
Anyway, regardless of my initial fears, some quick research showed me that the plane was in fact a 747-8i and as such, was probably built no earlier than 2012. After sitting through a safety video that left me somewhat cold (Air New Zealand’s are soooo much better), I found myself – four movies and eleven hours later – touching down in Incheon, South Korea.
Incheon, for those who find the name unfamiliar, is an ancient Korean city most famous (in the West) as the scene of the American General, Douglas MacArthur’s most decisive military victory. As the primary organiser behind Operation Chromite, MacArthur led a UN amphibious force into Incheon where he captured the city and the port, and ultimately gave the UN army the necessary advantage that allowed them to defeat the North Korean Army during the Korean War.
Needless to say, South Korea is a stunning place. In Incheon, massive skyscrapers dwarf the pristine city streets and everything seems to be designed with thought and splendor in mind. Even the gardens, trees, walkways and rocks appear to have been perfectly placed to enhance feelings of peace and beauty.
One of the highlights of the Korean leg would have to be the Korean toilets. Now in various situations in life I have often heard mention of these fantastical devices. Mostly, those telling the tales do so with a kind of wide eyed awe coupled with a knowledge of adventure that we mere mortals could only grasp at. I now believe that I can join that club, but in the interests of honesty, I will endeavor to describe these marvels of the art of ablutions.
The first thing I noticed about Korean toilets was the amount of buttons that one can push. Needing no further encouragement, I positioned myself on the toilet and began to do what any rational male would do when faced with so many buttons with Korean glyphics – I hit every button possible in no specific order to see what would happen. Well, after some initial surprises, I came to the following conclusions. The first button, it would seem, initiates stage 5 water blasting and high pressure colonic irrigation (I was not a particular fan of this and immediately began to push every button within reach to end the suffering). Button two was much more civilized – a warm cleansing spray of water provided a much more relaxed pathway to nether region hygiene. Finally, button three seemed to be reserved for women only – either that or I was sitting incorrectly on the damn thing which possibly meant that I needed to revise buttons one and two. Finally, there was a series of small buttons that I eventually worked out controlled the heat of the bottom cleansing water and the seat itself. Now call me soft, but after sitting on a heated toilet seat, no other toilet experience will ever be comparable. This is something that all New Zealand toilets need.
After a stay in a hotel where the bed seemed made for a giant and the food was oustanding, groups of us managed to brave the -7 degree Celsius morning for a walk around the city before we once again boarded another Korean Air plane and strapped ourselves in for another 11 hour flight. This flight was a little different as we knew that we would be passing close to zones of conflict and there were a few bets as to which route the plane would take. Obviously, Korean airliners and Russia don’t have the best track record (Russia has shot down two Korean passenger planes, one in 1978, the other in 1983), and we would want to avoid the skies around Syria for obvious reasons. Thus, no one was too surprised when we almost avoided Russia completely and flew the long way into Tel Aviv by flying out across Cyprus and the Mediterranean via Turkey.
Once in Israel we quickly attempted to get through customs but were slowed down by a massive influx of several planes all at the same time. We had heard stories about the Israeli security and we had become apprehensive in the long queues. By the time I got to customs, I was sure that I looked like a suicide bomber to any number of the airport security who were wandering around ensuring that we played by their rules. Once I got to my customs officer I did my best to look charming and innocent; I needn’t have bothered as the woman behind the counter didn’t say a single thing to me and ushered me through with as much disdain as is humanely imaginable. Heading off to our hotel in Jerusalem, the night hid the wonders of the ancient city and its stories. With almost the whole tour party falling over with exhaustion, the tangible expectation of what we would see, learn and discover over the next few weeks had everyone participating in various levels of stupid.
Tomorrow would be our first day in one of the most influential cities in Western history.